A Coeur d’Alene company has developed software for use by state agencies and nonprofits to help remind social service clients of tasks they need to do, freeing employees for more individualized interactions.
Career Index Corp. has developed SARA, or Semi Autonomous Research Assistant, a virtual assistant that combines artificial intelligence and natural language processing, said KD Nyegaard, executive director of the company. Using two-way electronic mail and text messaging, this “allows her to know who to engage, when to engage them, and engage in two-way conversation by interpreting responses and acting accordingly,” he said.
For example, if working with someone using a state job training agency to learn welding, the SARA system follows up with the person to check whether they’re attending all their classes, and what is limiting them. When they graduate, the system puts them into job search and follows up on that if they are having trouble finding a job. Once the person finds a job, the system checks on their employer, their salary, and their benefits. If the system runs into a problem, it refers the client to a case manager. Clients can also exchange documents with case managers by taking pictures of them with their phone.
“It takes the customer to successful closure without staff having to do anything, if everything goes well,” Nyegaard said. “It’s like having a bunch of coordinated assistants who act perfectly as they’ve been told, and they keep getting smarter and better, but never ask for a raise,” he said.
St. Vincent de Paul in Coeur d’Alene is using the software for free in its shelter, said Jeff Conroy, executive director. “It really does hold people we work with accountable,” he said. “It lets the social worker work with them as a person,” on functions such as whether they need work-appropriate clothing or computer repairs, he said. “It’s going to be a game-changer on the way we work in social services.”
After six months with the program, the organization is seeing an average stay of 28 days with the shelter, compared with the 90 days it had been seeing before the program, Conroy said. “When one case manager is seeing 30 people, it’s hard to see them more than twice a week,” he said. “Now they’re getting contact every day. For the first time in the ten years I’ve been director, everyone in the shelter has a job.”
The software lets case managers focus on counseling and guidance, Nyegaard said. Previously, “70 to 80 percent of their time was spent doing data entry and documentation for compliance with grant funding,” he said. “That’s grunt work. Most of them have masters’ degrees.”
While the company is based in Idaho, most of its 10 employees are in Colorado, New Mexico, California, and sites outside the U.S., Nyegaard said. “I came to Coeur d’Alene ten years ago and fell in love with the place,” he said, adding that he was working in Indiana at the time. “As long as you have a nice internet connection, it doesn’t matter where you are.”
Career Index has installed its software for 40 users in 10 states. Its only Idaho clients are using the software without charge. SARA is being used in federal, state, and local agencies in Kentucky, Nevada, Alaska, the Department of Education, George Washington University, and San Diego State, Nyegaard said. The other no-charge installation is with Heritage Health, a northern Idaho health provider, which is scheduled to begin in October. Nyegaard said he wanted to give back to the local community.